Quirky Marfa feeling effects of soaring popularity

The Associated PressJuly 13, 2014 

— Marfa's rise as a hip and cultural mecca has made the quirky small Texas town not so picture-perfect for many residents living there.

Some of Marfa's problems are tangible: The city struggles to provide basic services. School enrollment is in long-term decline. Property values are soaring and affordable housing is scarce, because for years, out-of-towners have been taking the cream of it for second homes.

The housing crisis hit home hard this summer when a reappraisal of all Presidio County properties instantly doubled the county tax base from $563 million to $1.14 billion, the San Antonio Express-News reported Sunday (http://bit.ly/1qwYIbm).

The skyrocketing property values are the result of Marfa becoming a darling getaway spot for well-heeled arts lovers and tourists from around the country. Shock and panic roiled Marfa homeowners, many of whom saw their property values soar.

County Judge Paul Hunt said what's happening here defies the normal pattern.

"This is the first time I have ever seen gentrification from the top down. Now the people with relatives in the cemetery are getting squeezed," he said.

The changing demographics are most clearly seen at the school district. Andrew Peters, superintendent of Marfa schools, says there are no jobs or affordable housing for families to move into his district that now has just 350 students, down from 500 in the 1990s.

For years, such problems were hidden by a cultural and economic renaissance in Marfa that began in the late 1990s and has brought the city a steady stream of outside investment, artists and visitors, as well as an enviable international cachet.

In downtown Marfa, one might run into a MacArthur Fellow getting a trim at Quintana's Barbershop or a German art buff waiting for the Andy Warhol exhibit to open.

Among its charms are the stately Paisano Hotel, a first-rate bookstore, its own public radio station, art galleries and studios, poetry readings and film festivals, and residency programs for artists and writers. Last year, almost 14,000 visitors came from as far away as Europe and Japan to ponder the exhibits at the Chinati Foundation.

But Marfa, with a per-capita income of $23,801, slightly higher than San Antonio's, also has a sizable underclass. A few blocks off the postcard perfect Highland Avenue are beaten-down mobile homes, old adobes, junk cars from the 1950s and unpaved streets.

"As a city, we struggle. It's very difficult to keep up with the infrastructure," said Dave Lanman, 62, a designer and builder who was mayor a decade ago.

The publication of the new appraisals last month triggered an ongoing siege of the Presidio County Appraisal District office, where almost 500 protests from Marfa alone have been filed.

"Oh my gosh, we have someone in here every 20 minutes. People are very upset. Some are mad," Chief Appraiser Cynthia Ramirez said.

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

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